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The Last Cruise by Kate Christensen

BOTTOM LINE: Disappointing because I was not ready for the harsh social commentary

Genre: Literary Fiction; Women’s Fiction
Publication Date: 10 July 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

” From the acclaimed PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author of The Great Man comes a riveting high-seas adventure that combines Christensen’s signature wit, irony, and humanity to create a striking and unforgettable vision of our times.

The 1950s vintage ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage before heading to the scrapyard. For the guests on board, among them Christine Thorne, a former journalist turned Maine farmer, it’s a chance to experience the bygone mid-twentieth century era of decadent luxury cruising, complete with fine dining, classic highballs, string quartets, and sophisticated jazz. Smoking is allowed but not cell phones–or children, for that matter. The Isabella sets sail from Long Beach, California into calm seas on a two-week retro cruise to Hawaii and back.

But this is the second decade of an uncertain new millennium, not the sunny, heedless ’50s, and certain disquieting signs of strife and malfunction above and below decks intrude on the festivities. Down in the main galley, Mick Szabo, a battle-weary Hungarian executive sous-chef, watches escalating tensions among the crew. Meanwhile, Miriam Koslow, an elderly Israeli violinist with the Sabra Quartet, becomes increasingly aware of the age-related vulnerabilities of the ship herself and the cynical corners cut by the cruise ship company, Cabaret.

When a time of crisis begins, Christine, Mick, and Miriam find themselves facing the unknown together in an unexpected and startling test of their characters.”

My Thoughts: I wanted to love The Last Cruise so much. With its three very different narrators providing distinctly independent viewpoints of the cruise, its guests, and its employees, I wanted a harmless adventure story with a bit more gravitas than normal. What I got was a rather depressing glimpse into cruise ship life and an even bleaker impression of current society. By the time the ending came, with its open-ended, anything-can-happen structure, I was ready to finish it because it left me feeling hopeless.

The thing is though that each of the three narrators enters the novel discontent and restless but finds him- and herself at peace and happy by the end. This should be cause for celebration and should make the novel a happy one. The problem is that while the three narrators’ individual stories are important, they take a back seat to what is happening on board the ship, and what is happening is chaotic and depressing. Between the brutal hours and almost slave-like work required by the crew to the sickening hedonism of the guests, Ms. Christensen portrays a disgusting image of corporate and personal greed as well as individual ignorance rounded out by a misplaced sense of self-importance. I was so repulsed by what I saw between the pages of The Last Cruise that I am uncertain whether I could ever stomach a cruise vacation.

My rather violent reaction to the novel is, I believe, Ms. Christensen’s intent, and I feel rather duped by it. I started the novel hoping and expecting some sort of adventure/crisis that tests the characters of the three narrators. This is what the synopsis promises, after all. While Ms. Christensen does provide a crisis that does test the narrators’ characters, the novel reads more like a very pointed critique of our consumerism culture. Everything that happens, including the nebulous ending, is a criticism of something related to corporate profits or shipboard gluttony. Our three narrators find themselves reveling in the simpler things, whether that is simpler recipes, a simpler lifestyle, or simpler health issues. This is in direct opposition to the rest of their fellow shipmates, who want all the food and alcohol or higher wages or more profits. I understand the message and can appreciate it as we watch the nation being torn asunder by a man who is the epitome of greed. However, it is not the type of novel I wanted to read.

I finished The Last Cruise hoping that the story would redeem itself and that the crisis would resolve like it does in all adventure novels – that the bad guys would get their just desserts and there would be a modicum of a happy ending. Instead, the story ends at the climax, leaving you hanging with a sense of dread and lack of hope for the ship and its passengers. Because the novel is such an obvious critique of modern, Western society, it then stands to reason that Ms. Christensen does not hold modern society in high regard and she has no faith that we can survive on our current course. Again, this is not what I wanted or expected by reading this novel.

We all have our miscues when it comes to selecting novels we think we want to read, but rarely have I been so wrong about a story. I want to blame the synopsis because while I see the explicit mentions of cynicism and malfunction, I do not see where we are supposed to know that Ms. Christensen applies those descriptors to society as well as the ship. Nor do I see anything that would lead me to believe that the ship is a metaphor for society. In fact, it specifically says “high-seas adventure,” so I clearly did not misinterpret anything. Had I been better prepared for what I would find among its pages, I suspect my appreciation for The Last Cruise would be different because I cannot fault Ms. Christensen for her observations or criticisms. However, because I was not expecting a social commentary, I was not in the right frame of mind to accept what I was reading and that is the greatest sadness of this whole experience.

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